An Old Story With a Dangerous New Twist

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

August 28, 2011

For American higher education, the Tea Party feels like a wake. As political groups, often with ties to the movement, have increasingly intruded on the affairs of public colleges and universities, financial cutbacks have forced campuses into a triage mode. Administrators squeeze savings out of already malnourished budgets; programs disappear; tuitions rise; and the inequalities of a seriously stratified system worsen. With higher education increasingly hard to pay for in the current economic crisis, it can no longer serve as a safety net for the middle class and a source of economic mobility for society. Nor, given the political attacks on academe, can our colleges maintain the intellectual excellence, diversity, and freedom that once made them the envy of the world.

POLITICS AND THE UNIVERSITY: ▶ Views From Experts on Six Campuses

To a certain extent, there is nothing new here. American public higher education has been underfinanced for years, battered by the broader assault on government of which the Tea Party's ascent is only the most recent iteration. Academe is, to paraphrase the antitax activist Grover Norquist's immortal phrase, drowning in the bathtub along with the rest of the public sector. With the individualistic and competitive values of the business world permeating colleges (both public and private), the common good that they once served has already disappeared down the drain.

The situation might not be so dire if higher education did not also have to counter a so-called reform movement that seeks to transform it into a research-and-training facility that operates as an auxiliary of the corporate sector. Despite its ostensible concern with access to mass higher education, this movement counts only the bottom line. Institutions must be accountable—in measurable, economic terms.

Enter such benighted endeavors as the Texas regents' attempt to develop a numerical assessment of faculty members' "productivity," based on a compilation of student evaluations, salaries, research grants, and the number of classes and students taught. Or last year's effort at Texas A&M University to determine whether the number of students each professor taught brought in enough tuition to offset that person's salary. Other systems and accrediting agencies are not quite so crass or simplistic, but the message is clear: In an era of rising tuition and declining tax revenue, academe must reassure the public it is getting its money's worth.

Unfortunately, the chosen metrics do not always offer an accurate picture of our campuses. Thus, for example, graduation rates—a beloved ingredient in assessment recipes—leave little scope for such real-world issues as the financial problems of students and their families. Similarly, the demand for comparable statistics distorts the diversity of a system of higher education that contains wide varieties within and among institutions and disciplines. Nor do the measurements take into account the highly stratified academic labor market. Just to take one example, this year's highly touted Academically Adrift faults colleges for not improving student learning. But while the book emphasizes the advantages of more student-faculty contact outside of class, it fails to note that the majority of professors are adjunct faculty and graduate students, who often lack offices.

Faculty members are the main targets here, as they have been for the past several decades. Beginning in the early 1970s, a surprisingly self-conscious campaign by conservative business leaders and foundations to create a more corporate-friendly public culture sought to delegitimize academic knowledge. Not only did it demonize faculty as tenured radicals, but it also subsidized right-wing think tanks that offered alternative sources of pro-business expertise to policy makers, journalists, and politicians. By the time the culture wars erupted, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the assault on academe had enshrined a negative stereotype of professors in the public mind.

Accordingly, as the shrinking contributions of state legislatures to the budgets of their colleges have forced those institutions to raise tuition, many politicians, pundits, and ordinary citizens have blamed the faculty. Already portrayed as liberals, leftists, or worse for indoctrinating students, writing incomprehensible prose, and working only 12 hours a week, faculty have little credibility. Tenure, already a tempting target for economically insecure Americans, has come under attack. That it no longer exists for more than 70 percent of today's higher-education faculty is irrelevant.

And then there's academic freedom. That professional protection—which allows faculty members to handle their classes, conduct research, and take public stands without interference from external political forces—has eroded in ways that we haven't seen since the McCarthy era. Today's threat, however, is both more diffuse and more sensitive to economic pressures.

To begin with, neither adjuncts nor non-tenure-track instructors have academic freedom. Unless covered by a union contract, they can be fired or otherwise let go at any moment, for any reason, or for no reason at all. Recently we have begun seeing egregious cases of institutions where the need to raise graduation rates has led to dismissals, harassment, or other sanctions against professors who tried to maintain academic standards by giving low grades for poor work.

Faculty members in politically controversial fields are also vulnerable. Middle East studies has long been a minefield. But in today's polarized environment, almost any field can come under attack. The recent assault on public-worker unions has endangered people in labor studies, while the opponents of global warming have launched virulent attacks on scientists in climatology. Climatology!

It's a vicious circle, and one that can only get worse unless the academic community—the entire academic community—recognizes that its own self-interest requires a united defense. That defense must transform the public debate about higher education into one that recognizes the broader social forces involved, explains the need for public financing, and stops scapegoating the faculty. Even then, as the economy totters, maintaining an optimistic perspective on the future of American colleges and universities requires considerable cognitive dissonance.

Ellen Schrecker, a professor of history at Yeshiva University, is the author of The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University (New Press, 2010). She is a member of the American Association of University Professors' Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.